Tulcingo Restaurant

Part of what I’m calling the “Golden Oldies” series: photos I had posted on Instagram in bygone days that surely belong here as well, from restaurants that are still doing business, still relevant, and still worth a trip.

In a recent post I noted that there are seemingly dozens of restaurants along the Latin American strip on 5th Avenue in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park and no, I’m not going to try to eat my way through all of them. But back in April, 2017, we visited one of the neighborhood’s better known eateries and it did not disappoint. Tulcingo, at 5520 5th Ave, offers an extensive menu and we barely scratched the surface. Here are a few photos:

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Birria (it’s a two syllable word) hails from the Mexican state of Jalisco. I don’t recall if this dish was as trendy then as it is now, but I do recall that Tulcingo’s rendering was a tasty one. It’s essentially a meat stew, customarily made with goat although this version is Birria de Res so beef is the star of the show. Birria distinguishes itself from similar recipes in that the meat is marinated in savory adobo before it goes into the stew pot – and you can taste the difference.


And while we’re on the subject of beef, these are Tacos de Lengua, tongue for the uninitiated – so tender that I was about to describe it as meat that melts in your mouth but I thought the better of it. Delicious.


Shifting the focus from head to toe, or more specifically from mouth to limb, this is Pierna Adobada, pork leg, marinated and roasted to perfection.


Plato Barbacoa de Chivo. If you’ve never tried goat before, this is a good way to do it because you don’t have to wrestle with extricating bits of meat from a carcass – no bones about it. Barbacoa is marinated and traditionally steamed in a pit which guarantees juicy results although other methods of preparation can be just as successful; it’s pulled and shredded for serving.


Rice and beans to stave off teasing about how meat-heavy our dinner had been!
 
 
Tulcingo is located at 5520 5th Ave in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
 
 

Cremature Judgment

The stretch of 5th Avenue between about 38th and 59th Streets in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park is a mecca for Mexican, Central and South American food (at the risk of mixing my geographic meccaphors).

My plan had been to do a definitive roundup of the varieties of crema to be found there but as Robert Burns wrote, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley.” Each time I set about composing the post, some new question popped up that warranted an investigation and prompted another trip back to Sunset Park: I had to stop somewhere even if I hadn’t evaluated everything there was to evaluate. So rather than an exhaustive report (because it would be exhausting to write and even more so to read), I offer these tasting notes perhaps prematurely.

I’m going to assume that you are already familiar with crema and when you run across a Mexican recipe on the interwebs that calls for sour cream, you raise an eyebrow, question its authenticity, and wonder if the result will taste pretty much like the real deal, particularly if the next ingredient is Velveeta.

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Any well-stocked supermarket around these parts is likely to have a least one brand of crema, usually Mexican style and often Tropical brand. Note that Tropical refers to its product as “cultured sour cream”; I don’t know if that’s an actual distinction or just a clarification for the American marketplace. If you see it, try it; in the vernacular of cybershorthand, IMHO any crema > any sour cream. But if you want to take a deeper dive, and you should, it’s easy to find Quesos La Ricura brand and others in Latin American neighborhoods.

The difference between these two brands of Crema Mexicana is both significant and subjective: for starters, Tropical is saltier. Regarding texture: I could be wrong but I find a lot of dairy products (including yogurt) seem to have upped the ante these days on guar gum content; it’s a stabilizing and thickening agent made from guar beans and imparts a viscous, not quite sticky quality to whatever it “enriches” but doesn’t affect the flavor. (Note that all of the brands I sampled for this post use gums of one kind or another. So does your favorite ice cream.) In this case, Tropical is thicker but gummier and, based on my experience, enjoys a longer shelf life than Quesos La Ricura, enough to make me speculate about the fingerprint of higher guar gum content. Tasted good though.


But Mexican crema only begins to plumb the depths; here are examples of Salvadoran, Honduran and Guatemalan cremas as well to champion their own rendition of this (literally) crowning achievement, each proudly displaying its flag and crowing “para el gusto de nuestros pueblos”. Gotta love it.

The nutritional info on the back of the jars as well as the ingredients listed on the front are identical; the color variations run from Honduran ivory though Guatemalan then Salvadoran and finally to Mexican snow-white.

Texture notes: Mexican and Honduran were the thinnest. Guatemalan is the heaviest, more like a hybrid of sour cream and crème fraîche.

Flavor notes: Among the four, Salvadoran was rich, salt level just right, and a little sweet (my fave if you must know); Mexican was saltiest; Honduran was salty and a little more acidic, perhaps with barely a hint of cheesiness; and Guatemalan was less tart/tangy than the others. In general, the Central American versions were a bit nuttier and richer than their Mexican counterparts.

But bear in mind that these are fine grades of distinction; YMMV based on your own personal taste and the age of the product. Age of the product? Read on….

Now, originally I thought that Guatemalan had a slight cheesy funkiness to it – but was it “on the edge”? So I went back to Sunset Park (one example of what I meant by new wrinkles hindering me from finishing this post) and bought another jar of the same brand (the one evaluated but not photographed here). Curiously, this time it was in a shorter jar like the others and topped with a white cap. Was the first one past its prime? I used it well before its sell-by date. I’ve decided that those dates should be taken with a grain of salt (ahem); technically, these all still have a month to go but I know there’s no way they’re all going to survive that long. Is it this particular brand or the store’s handling of it? We’ll never know. But don’t let that deter you: get one with a distant sell-by date and you’ll most likely be fine.

Also be aware that the variations from brand to brand are almost more important than their national styles. But in general, cremas are all richer and runnier than sour cream and that’s really what you’re after, especially if you’re not doing an OCD A/B comparison.

And I won’t even begin to talk about the commercial products that come in plastic bags, or even better, unlabeled plastic bags in the dairy case – that’s the housemade stuff and usually worth getting.

But now, a problem has emerged: What am I supposed to do with all this crema in the fridge? Expect to see some home cooking where I’ve swapped it in for sour cream, yogurt, crème fraîche or even buttermilk.
 
 
But if you see me putting it in my coffee…send help.
 
 

Cinco de Mayo – 2021

Since it’s Cinco de Mayo, I found myself musing about some of the Mexican dishes I’ve cobbled together over the past year or so of quarantining and hyper-conscientiousness. I’m hopeful that my 👨‍🍳 Cooking in the Time of COVID 👨‍🍳 series will be drawing to a close soon – but for just a little while longer, I’m still proceeding con cuidado.

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Chicken Mole. Shredded chicken, sautéed onions and the like combined with a packet of Mole Rojo Oaxaqueño (took the easy way out that time) topped with some crema Mexicana. (BTW, stay tuned for a post about the subtle differences among commercially available Mexican, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Honduran cremas.) In the back, rice cooked in chicken broth along with onion, garlic, red bell pepper and achiote for color; freshly grated cotija cheese sprinkled on top. On the side, black beans, corn, and jalapeños with red pepper, onion, garlic and spices including Mexican oregano and Tajín.

And what did I do with the leftovers?

¡Las quesadillas estaban deliciosas!

For a side dish, I made esquites, the Mexican street food favorite: grilled corn with garlic, jalapeños, scallions, cilantro, crema and lime juice topped with crumbled cotija cheese and Tajín.


On another occasion, I was jonesing for fish tacos and it wasn’t even the officially sanctioned el martes. Besides, it gave me an excuse to break out the comal and make salsa cruda. There’s nothing auténtico about these, but they were a cinch to prepare. Pan seared fish, cut into chunks and set into a taco shell along with avocado, shredded lettuce, shredded cheese, and a bit of crema, all awaiting some homemade salsa to do the heavy flavor lifting.


The salsa cruda started by charring white onion, tomatillos, tomato, and jalapeño on a comal – shown here mid-blister. Added rehydrated dried ancho and chipotle chilies, cilantro, garlic, lime juice, olive oil, salt, and a pinch of cumin and Mexican oregano. I chopped it all by hand because a blender or food processor creates a thin salsa which is fine but I prefer some crunch.


The finished product. And last but not least…


…guacamole!
 
 
¡Feliz Cinco de Mayo!
 
 
Stay safe, be well, and eat whatever it takes. ❤️
 
 

Cosa de Boniato y Chorizo

👨‍🍳 Cooking in the Time of COVID 👨‍🍳

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That’s not its real name, of course, but I haven’t come up with a proper one for it yet and I didn’t want to call the post “Untitled” because this serendipitous culinary invention may well be one of the best dishes I have ever concocted. Why serendipitous? Here’s how it came about:

I was playing Socially Distanced Produce Aisle Roulette; that’s where you stand six feet away from the person who got to the vegetable counter first and cool your heels as they pick over each Brussels sprout to select the winning candidates for their dinner. Truthfully, I don’t mind playing this game because I know that it will be my turn soon enough and it gives me time to peruse the landscape for veggies that had not originally made it onto my shopping list.

To its credit, my white-bread supermarket actually does carry some Latin American vegetables if you know where to look. They’re stocked at eye level – if you’re a Chihuahua. Check out the floor-level bins beneath the bananas and you’ll see the platanos. Look under the sweet potatoes and lo and behold you’ll find the boniatos. Appearances notwithstanding, these marvelous tubers aren’t yams and are only remotely related to potatoes (same taxonomic order, Solanales) – and in some respects they’re better than either. They’re a little on the dry side, quite sweet, and taste more like chestnuts than any other starchy veg that purports to taste like chestnuts. Cook ’em the same way you’d cook potatoes.

Anyway, as I patiently waited for an opening, I began to mull over what I might whip up using a boniato. For some reason, my bespoke recipe for potato salad came to mind, but with Mexican overtones. But please note: this was not destined to be “Mexican Potato Salad”. First off, the whole idea of that sounds coy, gimmicky, and likely to disappoint; secondly, I was envisioning a dish served warm, unctuous, and as a main course, not a side.

Nonetheless, I decided that a swap-in for each ingredient in my recipe would be a worthwhile idea, so here’s what I did: boniato for potatoes, Mexican chorizo for bacon, poblano pepper for red bell pepper, chopped white onion (very Mexican) for sweet Vidalia onion, cilantro for parsley, cambray onion (scallions would work, too) for celery (the crunchy contingent), and a garlicky, lemony aioli for the balsamic-vinegary, honey-mustardy mayonnaise that holds it all together – literally matching up ingredient for ingredient, but in different proportions of course.

As I said, in my humble opinion, it was amazing: sweet from the boniato, spicy from the chorizo, tangy from the aioli, yielding yet crunchy, lavish yet homespun, and incredibly delicious beyond even my most unbridled fantasies. Of course, the real test will be to make it again and see if I’m still blown away by it. Hey, I might even write down ingredient quantities next time! 😉
 
 
Stay safe, be well, and eat whatever it takes. ❤️
 
 

A Passover Dare

(Originally posted on April 20, 2019, in better times.)

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Previously on ethnojunkie.com, I did a springtime post that included a story about someone who dared me to come up with an ethnic fusion Passover menu. I wrote:

Well, far be it from me to dodge a culinary challenge! So although obviously inauthentic, but certainly fun and yummy, here’s to a Sazón Pesach!

Picante Gefilte Pescado
Masa Ball Posole
Brisket Mole
Poblano Potato Kugel
Maple Chipotle Carrot Tzimmes
Guacamole spiked with Horseradish
Charoset with Pepitas and Tamarindo

And, of course, the ever popular Manischewitz Sangria!

It was all in good fun, of course, but it got me thinking about actually creating a Jewish-Mexican fusion recipe. It isn’t strictly Kosher for Passover, but I thought the concept was worth a try. So here is my latest crack at cross cultural cooking: Masa Brei!

Now you might know that Matzo Brei (literally “fried matzo”) is a truly tasty dish consisting of matzos broken into pieces that are soaked briefly in warm milk (some folks use water), drained, soaked in beaten eggs until soft, then fried in copious quantities of butter. Typically served with sour cream and applesauce, it’s heimische cooking, Jewish soul food, at its finest and it’s easy to do.

So I thought it might be worth a try to swap out the matzos for tostadas, the milk for horchata, the sour cream for crema, and the applesauce for homemade pineapple-jalapeño salsa. A sprinkle of tajín, a scatter of chopped cilantro – and it actually worked!

Happy Passover!
!חג פסח שמח
 
 

Guacamolcajete (Not)

👨‍🍳 Cooking in the Time of COVID 👨‍🍳

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Since I mentioned using a molcajete in my last post, here’s a bit more information as promised. The molcajete is Mexico’s version of a mortar and pestle; both pieces, the porcine basin and the grinding tool (the tejolote) are crafted from volcanic rock. You apply the tejolote to the ingredients (spices or vegetables) with a pressing and twisting action which results in a texture that’s considerably different from what you’d get with a spice grinder or a food processor; that method in turn affects the flavor.


And you’ve no doubt witnessed it being pressed into service (no pun intended) when preparing and serving guacamole and the like in Mexican restaurants. I use mine primarily for its unique grinding capability and less frequently for presentation – after all, it’s not called a guacamolcajete – but sometimes this three-legged stone piggie likes to dress for the occasion.


“Ready for my closeup E.J.” (She’s something of a diva: she’s the prettiest I’ve ever seen – and she knows it.)
 
 
Stay safe, be well, and eat whatever it takes. ❤️
 
 

Taco Tuesday (Not)

👨‍🍳 Cooking in the Time of COVID 👨‍🍳

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Do you get pandemically induced food cravings too or am I alone in this? For no apparent reason I was jonesing for fish tacos and it wasn’t even the officially sanctioned el martes. Besides, it gave me an excuse to break out the comal and make salsa cruda.

Here’s what I did to scratch the itch. There’s nothing auténtico about these, but they were a cinch to prepare. You can use any neutral white filet like tilapia or basa because there’s so much going on in this application that any richly flavorful fish would get lost in the sauce. Literally. I tend to think of tilapia and other entry-level fish as an artist’s canvas: it’s essentially an uninteresting blank medium waiting to be turned into a masterpiece. Or in this case, dinner.

Season (or even marinate) the fish, then bake, grill, or pan sear in a skillet (that’s what I did: easier cleanup), cut into chunks and carefully place them into the taco shell or tortilla of your choice, along with avocado, shredded lettuce (or not), shredded or crumbled cheese (or not), crema (or not), and let the salsa do the heavy flavor lifting.


The salsa cruda started by charring white onion, tomatillos, tomato, and jalapeño on a comal – shown here mid-blister. Previously, I had used it to quickly toast some dried ancho and chipotle chilies then let them soak until rehydrated. When all the chilies are ready, remove any excess seeds and lose the juice from the tomato (it’ll make more). I chopped it all by hand because a blender or food processor creates a thin salsa which is fine but I prefer some crunch. (A molcajete works well too – see my upcoming post about guacamole, another craving inspired by this dish.) I included chopped cilantro, garlic, lime juice, olive oil, salt, and a pinch of cumin and Mexican oregano.


The finished product.

Itch scratched. Except for the aforementioned guacamole. Stay tuned.
 
 
Stay safe, be well, and eat whatever it takes. ❤️
 
 

Girasol Bakery

My cat’s favorite catnip mouse had been missing for over a week. Every night, Mercury (he answers to Murky) would select that one particular, very special mouse from his box of about twenty, deposit it just outside the bedroom door, and meow vociferously until I, in grateful appreciation of his gift, emerge to retrieve it and offer a kitty treat in exchange. Every Single Night. But now, that mouse was gone, and clearly, since Murky had been failing to keep his nightly appointment, there would be no substitute. I missed his bedtime visit just as he missed that mouse.

Well obviously, given the circumstances, there was only one thing I could do: scope out every pet shop within a four mile radius of my apartment until I could track down an identical replacement. By the end of that afternoon I was ready to give up. Only one store remained on my list but miraculously, there was one such mouse in stock – the last one they had.

Triumphant, I started for home, but a few storefronts away I spotted Girasol Bakery at 690 5th Avenue in Brooklyn’s South Slope neighborhood. Being on a diet (thanks a lot, COVID), I’ve been scrupulously avoiding bakeries, “but it can’t hurt to just peek in,” I thought. Famous Last Thoughts.

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I’m a fan of bread pudding even though some versions can be a little dry, practically begging to be paired in a duet with drizzle of sauce. But this one was so moist, so luscious looking, it was undoubtedly a soloist. I caved.


Its display case neighbor was the archetypal Mexican dessert, chocoflan, aka “impossible cake”. A dark layer of chocolate cake oozing richness topped with a golden layer of creamy flan (they separate during the baking process, hence the nickname) proved irresistible, so okay, one piece, please. They’ll keep; I don’t have to eat them both at once.


Another case nearby flaunted tempting tres leches cake, that transcendent dessert drenched in three kinds of milk (sweetened condensed, evaporated, and heavy cream). Makes you wonder if you should consume it with a fork or a spoon. Or perhaps a straw. The trio should last for three days at least, longer if I divvy them up.

I arrived home with my treats and Murky’s new BFF. As I was enjoying a prudently tiny taste of each of the three goodies, he brought me his new mouse and laid it at my feet – as if to say, “Thank you.” Awww, Murky!

But then, one prudently tiny taste later, he brought me his old mouse and laid it at my feet – as if to say, “Psych!”

Damn. The ignominy of being outfoxed by a cat. Well obviously, given the circumstances, there was only one thing I could do: polish off the rest of the people treats in stark exasperation then and there. Diet? What diet?
 
 
Stay safe, be well, and eat whatever it takes. ❤️
 
 

Dia de los Muertos

(Originally posted on October 31, 2019. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some businesses may be closed – temporarily, we hope – and prices may vary.)

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You’ve heard it before: “Oh, Día de los Muertos is Mexican Halloween, right?”

Wrong. Día de los Muertos is decidedly not Mexican Halloween any more than Chanukah is Jewish Christmas and if any unenlightened soul tries to tell you that, please disabuse them of that fallacious notion inmediatamente!

The Mexican holiday, Day of the Dead, is celebrated from October 31 through November 2 – and “celebrated” is the proper word: families congregate to memorialize loved ones who have passed away, but it is seen as a time when the departed temporarily revivify and join in the revelry rather than as a sorrowful occasion. Additionally, these days Día de Muertos, as it is also known, serves as a paean to the indigenous people with whom it originated in pre-Hispanic times.

So I headed out to Sunset Park, Brooklyn, to get myself into the Día de los Muertos spirit. Sequin-eyed, neon icing-coiffed calaveras (sugar skulls) are relatively easy to find in the neighborhood; this one came from Panadería La Espiga Real, 5717 5th Avenue. Although spirits don’t eat, this one seemed particularly interested in the pan de muerto I picked up at La Flor de Izucar, 4021 5th Avenue.

This bread of the dead is customarily embossed with bone shapes, sometimes crossbones, sometimes in a circle, and other traditional embellishments such as skulls and a single teardrop. It’s a barely sweet, simple bun (like so many Mexican panes dulces), light and airy with a tight crumb, and topped with sesame seeds or sugar (like this one) with hints of cinnamon, anise, and orange flower water.


Above: A view of the inner sanctum.
 
 

July is National Ice Cream Month! Celebrate Globally!

(Note 1: I update this post annually because you can never have enough ethnic ice cream. Or at least I can’t! 😉)

(Note 2: Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some businesses may be closed – temporarily, we hope. Please check before venturing out.)

Every August, as a routinely flushed, overheated child, I would join in chorus with my perspiring cohorts, boisterously importuning, “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!” Little did I realize that rather than conjuring dessert, I was conjugating it and probably laying the groundwork for a lifetime of fascination with foreign languages and world food.

We lived in close proximity to one of the best dairies in town; it was known for its wide assortment of locally produced natural flavors, certainly sufficient in number and variety to satisfy any palate. Perhaps my obsession with offbeat ice cream flavors is rooted in my frustration with my father’s return home from work, invariably bearing the same kind of ice cream as the last time, Neapolitan. Neapolitan, again. My pleas to try a different flavor – just once? please? – consistently fell on deaf ears. “Neapolitan is chocolate, strawberry and vanilla. That’s three flavors right there. If you don’t want it, don’t eat it.” Some kids’ idea of rebellion involved smoking behind the garage; mine was to tuck into a bowl of Rum Raisin.

Since the dog days of summer are upon us, that’s as good an excuse as any to consume mass quantities of ice cream. So that it doesn’t turn into a book, I’m going to circumscribe this post with the following definition of ice cream: if it doesn’t contain dairy (with one exception), it’s a different story – and one that I’ll tell eventually, so stay tuned for more about sorbets, Italian ices, granitas, paletas, piraguas, raspados, bingsu, kakigori, halo-halo, ais kacang, baobing, and myriad other contributions to the shave ice contingent.

And lest you think I’ve forgotten about all the hundreds of incredible flavors of ice cream and frozen yogurt that have gained popularity recently and that are liberally sprinkled all over New York City like so many jimmies on a sundae, I’ve drawn the line on the side of “international” as a descriptor within this piece – not that I have anything against fantastical frozen flights of fancy, just that I need to stop somewhere.

So with those two constraints in mind and with spoon in hand, let’s embark on a world tour of summertime scoops. We’ll consider two categories, common ice cream manifested in international flavors and indigenous ethnic ice cream styles.
 
 
Italy: One step removed from America’s favorite warm weather treat is gelato, Italy’s answer to ice cream. Using good old, down home American ice cream as our starting point for comparison, let’s examine the differences. American ice cream has more fat (more cream than milk plus the presence of egg yolks – with even higher quantities of egg yolks in French style ice cream) than gelato. It also has more air (“overrun”) than gelato which is why gelato seems denser. In addition, gelato is usually kept at a slightly higher temperature, another factor that contributes to its alluring consistency and concentrated flavor.

Gelato is available in many of the exciting and unexpected flavor bombs of the prevailing ice cream barrage, but because of its texture, it’s also uniquely suited to certain European flavors. Here are two of the scores of fine gelaterias that can be found around the city.

Il Laboratorio del Gelato, 188 Ludlow Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side has over 200 flavors of gelato, many of which are true-fruit and fabulous, but I’m singling them out here because of a few that, in my opinion, work better as gelato than ice cream such as crème fraiche, olive oil, fior di latte, ricotta, and mascarpone.

By the same token, L’Albero dei Gelati, 341 5th Avenue, Park Slope, Brooklyn often has remarkable offerings like extra virgin olive oil, hibiscus, saffron, gianduja, torrone, ricotta, and burro e sale (butter and salt), another example of a flavor profile that works as gelato (yes, really), but I can’t imagine as American ice cream.
 
 
Thailand: Continuing in Park Slope, Sky Ice, 63 5th Avenue, boasts a Thai/Vietnamese roster that often includes Thai tea, roasted Thai coconut, durian, white miso almond, black sesame seaweed, and mangosteen, along with their savory non-dessert items (yet another story).

Thai Rolled Ice Cream, also referred to as “stir-fried ice cream”, has become a trendy craze of late. Found at venues like Minus10 Ice Cream and I-CE-NY and throughout Chinatown, the Village, and pretty much anywhere kids congregate, it’s made from an ice cream base that’s poured onto a metal sheet chilled to a temperature well below the freezing point. The mixture is manipulated on the sheet (mix-ins added optionally), smoothed into a thin layer where it flash freezes, and ultimately scraped up into a roll with a spatula that looks like a putty knife. It did get its start in Thailand, so I suppose it’s ethnic. It’s certainly cute.
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China: One of the sweeter perks of living in New York City is that instead of a passport, you only need a Metrocard to sample many of those aforementioned hundreds of incredible flavors and global varieties.

For over 30 years, The Chinatown Ice Cream Factory, 65 Bayard Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown, 115 Delancey Street in Essex Market on the Lower East Side, and 135-15 40th Road in Flushing, has reigned supreme as the king of homemade ice cream in delicious Asian inspired flavors. (Incidentally, they have well over a dozen non-Asian varieties, both innovative and familiar, all of which are excellent and listed on their menu – with a wink – as “exotics”.) Notable “regular” entries include…

• Dan Tat – You know the diminutive sweet egg custard tarts that you see all over Chinatown in dim sum parlors and bakeries? (You don’t? Then you need to join me on one of my Chinatown ethnojunkets!) Those are dan tat (sometimes, don tot) and originally of Portuguese provenance; here is a look at these goodies. This ice cream flavor owes its lusciousness to those pastries.
• Durian – A yellow fruit whose reputation is that it smells like hell but tastes like heaven. It might be an acquired taste but it’s well worth acquiring. (Read my post, Durian’s Best Kept Secret, for more information.)
• Pandan – The leaf of a tropical plant commonly used in Southeast Asian cooking, screwpine in English, green in color. It’s absolutely delicious, and in my opinion has the same kind of magical affinity for coconut that chocolate has for nuts or bacon for, well, anything.)
• Taro/Ube (Yes, they’re different, but we’ll get to the root of that in another post.) – I’m happy to report that these purplish starches are making serious inroads into becoming mainstream around these parts, and deservedly so.

…plus excellent versions of almond cookie, black sesame, lychee, and Thai tea. You’ve no doubt seen packaged pints of red bean, green tea, and ginger ice cream in your local market; Chinatown Ice Cream Factory’s versions are richer tasting if only because they’re freshly made, but beyond that, they’re a superior product.

Of course, there are additional ice cream parlors of Chinese character to be found in our city. Brooklyn is home to Sweet Dynasty Ice Cream, 5918 5th Avenue in Sunset Park, a tiny shop featuring handmade ice cream; their milk tea flavor is unique.
 
 
The Tropics: Since you’re already in Sunset Park, you really should check out Luvums Helado de Coco at 4716 7th Avenue. This is the “one exception” I declared earlier. Their coconut milk based helados are so rich and creamy, you might not even realize they’re non-dairy but with such delicious tropical flavors as soursop, guanabana, guineo, bizcocho, morir soñando, tamarindo, maíz, and lots more, I couldn’t bring myself to leave them out. They’ve opened a new location at 1124 Surf Avenue, also in Brooklyn.

Speaking of tropical flavors and Brooklyn, Taste the Tropics brand ice cream has a brick and mortar venue at 1839 Nostrand Avenue where you’ll find flavors true to their Caribbean roots like soursop, rum raisin, rummy nut, smooth and creamy stout, and great nut. Yes, stout and rum do figure significantly into Jamaican ice cream flavors; grown-ups can scream for ice cream too! By the way, great nut, as you might have surmised, is made with Grape-Nuts, the breakfast cereal.

And while you’re basking in Brooklyn’s trip to the tropics, pay a visit to the folks at Island Pops, 680 Nostrand Avenue, where flavors like soursop, sorrel, caramel orange bitters, and Guinness (of course) can be found. Look for them at pop-ups around the city as well.
 
 
Latin America: Needless to say, just about every Latin American country has its own spin on ice cream.

Manhattan has its share of purveyors of frosty goodness from sultry climes. One such is La Newyorkina at 240 Sullivan Street in the West Village representing Mexico with varieties like arroz con leche, canela cajeta, horchata, and chocolate chili. It’s made the old fashioned way, in a metal cylinder surrounded by ice and salt inside a wooden bucket. I had the opportunity to taste it at the World’s Fare in April; so nice, I went back twice.

Paleteria Los Michoacanos at 101-06 43rd Ave in Corona, Queens specializes in the most amazing, intensely flavorful paletas (Mexican ice pops on a stick) that I have ever encountered. Ever. They made the cut in this dairy-only post because of their outstanding milk-based flavors such as coco, galletas con crema, arroz, fresa de leche, pine nut, chocolate, queso con zarzamora (cheese and blackberry, first photo below), and chongos zamoranos (a Mexican dessert made from curdled milk and rennet).

Of course, I could do an entire story on international desserts in Queens alone where 138 different languages are spoken by people from over 150 countries. One of the joys of wandering through any ethnic neighborhood is stumbling upon delights like this Ecuadorian frozen confection sold under the name “Los Helados de Salcedo”. Read my post for more detail.

And that’s actually the best way to ferret out unusual taste treats. While wandering through a Peruvian enclave in Paterson, NJ, it was easy to find cherimoya, cupuaçu, and the extremely popular lúcuma (first photo below) as well as other flavors based on fruits cultivated in South America. I’ve never found fresh lúcuma in NYC but once, on an ethnojunket in Manhattan’s Chinatown, I came across the closely related eggfruit; their flavor has been compared to butterscotch or a mix of maple and sweet potato. I’ve also seen lúcuma ice cream at Creme & Sugar, 58-42A Catalpa Avenue in Ridgewood, proof that New York has pretty much everything if you know where to look.

Paterson is also home to a thriving Middle Eastern community where we found this marvelous sunshine yellow homemade Persian Akbar Mashti Bastani (saffron rosewater ice cream) with pistachios. More about the Middle East in a moment.
 
 
The Philippines: Not to be outdone by any of these, emblematic Filipino flavors like ube (purple yam), macapuno (a gelatinous coconut variant), avocado, corn, jackfruit, halo-halo (mixed fruits and then some), quezo (yes, cheese) and combinations thereof are generally available at Filipino markets like Phil-Am Food Mart, 40-03 70th Street, Woodside, Queens and are not to be missed.

On the local front, Angela’s Ice Cream at 151 Allen Street in Manhattan has brought freshly made, small batch, Filipino ice cream flavors to New York City and each one is delicious. The story behind the story is that Angela had been making these at home for her husband who has a passion for the stuff – so much so that they decided she should share her talents with the rest of us, hence, her first business venture which opened on June 15, 2019. Dense and creamy, hand crafted with no artificial flavors (in others words, jackfruit is jackfruit, not a concentrate), it’s the first Filipino ice cream actually produced here in NYC. It’s currently available in mango, langka (jackfruit), ube, choc-nut, vanilla, avocado (and yes, it’s the real deal), pandan, and buko-macapuno.
 
 
Sweden: And speaking of local, only about a block from Angela’s you’ll find Bon Bon at 130 Allen Street. In addition to providing an overwhelming assortment of candy including Swedish salty licorice as well as the sweetish kind, they’ve recently added Swedish soft-serve ice cream, mjukglass. Its recipe is richer than conventional soft serve because of a greater measure of cream, but it’s the unique selection of sprinkles and syrups that provide the vital distinction. Shown here is vanilla (they have chocolate too) with licorice syrup and two kinds of toppings, salty licorice and salty licorice flakes. Amid seven syrups and eleven kinds of sprinkles, this is the combo that I enthusiastically recommend. They tell me that that this treatment is exactly what you’d find all over Sweden, right down to the brand of syrup and the unusual dispenser with its inverted bottles. (See second photo.) If you think you don’t like licorice, let alone salty licorice, this may well be your gateway drug.

 
 
Every summer brings the Fancy Food Show, North America’s largest specialty food and beverage convention, to New York City’s Javits Center; with over 200,000 products on display from 55 countries and regions, I’m in my element. The event offers thousands of exhibitors the opportunity to introduce their wares to consumerland. A few participants from recent years’ spectacles:
 

Brazil: Among many products, the Brazilian pavilion highlighted Cremosinn, absolutely delicious frozen yogurt in an assortment of flavors including acai (of course), passion fruit, soursop, coconut, condensed milk, and azul. (Azul means blue, one of the favored “flavors” of the popsicles of my youth. How blue became a flavor has always eluded me; perhaps there were too many fruits like cherry, raspberry, and strawberry to be represented by a single immediately identifiable color so the food industry decided that a diacritical hue was called for, hence, blue. I still don’t know which fruit it corresponded to though. But I digress.) It comes in a cellophane packet that encloses a plastic pouch filled with the frozen yogurt; snip off a corner and suck out the sweet, creamy goodness.

 
Japan: Mochi is a traditional Japanese food originally made from short grain glutinous rice that’s pounded and molded, often into chewy flattened orbs. Frequently a confectionary, its sphere of influence has extended far beyond the perimeter of its source. A new version was created about 35 years ago that wraps mochi dough around ice cream. This contemporary edition, technically called mochi ice cream, has become so popular that it’s often simply referred to as mochi.

Several companies displayed their renditions at the convention including Mr. Mochi, Sweety Ice Cream, My/Mo, and Bubbies, a Hawaiian contender. Flavors ranged from red bean, green tea, black sesame, and lychee to Kona coffee, chocolate peanut butter, and mango along with the more routine vanilla and strawberry among others. Note that in some cases, the ice cream core carries the flavor unassisted by the somewhat neutral mochi coating, but sometimes the doughy wrapper is infused as well and further enhances the experience. Look for these and other brands in Asian markets, particularly those that highlight Japanese goods. And while you’re there, take note of the seemingly infinite array of Japanese and Korean pops, bars, and ice cream novelties as well (melon is a popular flavor).

Even Chinese Mooncakes, not usually an ice cream commodity, are getting into the act with similar extravagances like Chocolate Icy Moon Cake. More about those in my Chinese Mooncakes Demystified post.
 
 
Korea: Back to world flavors of American style ice cream, Scoop by Spot was exhibiting at the Fancy Food Show with flavors like Misugaru, based on a Korean beverage; it’s available at Spot Dessert Bars in New York City. Noona’s (noona means “big sister” in Korean) showed off heritage flavors like toasted rice, golden sesame, black sesame, turmeric honeycomb and green tea.

 
 
Latvia was at the Fancy Food Show as well making a push to pop into the American marketplace with at least four brands of Latvian ice cream available in tubs, cones, pops, and bars with intriguing varieties like orange & macarons, raspberry-pomegranate, and black balsam & blackcurrant (first photo below). In addition to ice cream, the Latvian company Speka offered several varieties of curd snacks. Curd snacks are not unlike a cross between an Eskimo pie and chocolate covered cheesecake; individually wrapped, they come in an assortment of flavors from chocolate and vanilla to the more esoteric blueberry, blackberry, and raisin. They’re currently available as Russian/FSU products in markets throughout the city, with a high concentration in Brooklyn, of course. Always a high point on my ethnojunkets along Brighton Beach Avenue, I’ll do a feature about those soon.

 
 
And speaking of Russia, ask anyone who lived there during the Soviet era about plombir and listen as they wax rhapsodic with nostalgia for this storied delicacy. Back then, the adage was that travelers came to Russia for only three reasons: to see the ballet, to visit the circus, and to eat ice cream. Plombir, named for Plombières-les-Bains in France, home to elaborate frozen confections, was manufactured to the strictest Soviet standards with a high butterfat content, no additives, and a creamy consistency.

I suspect that the plombir I find along Brighton Beach Avenue may be a frosty shadow of its former self, but since it’s too late to journey to the Soviet Union I can’t speak from personal experience. I can tell you that what’s here is good: every food store in the neighborhood carries a multitude of Russian brands, CCCP (Союз Советских Социалистических Республик), the Russian abbreviation for USSR, and Dadu are popular. Although distinctive, many of the Russian contenders are similar to American ice cream; most have more overrun and creaminess varies, some take the form of fancy ice cream cakes, but the flavors often run to the more prosaic chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla.

Unlike most American styles where cream leads the list of ingredients, Bandi plombir hands the top spot to milk; you’d anticipate a flavor profile that’s less rich, but the second ingredient is butter, so judge it on its own merits. In addition, individual hand-held treats like eskimo with its chocolate shell, tubular lakomka, and waffle cups of ice cream with a swirl of jam or sherbet in tempting flavors like black currant, caramel, and sweetened condensed milk are widespread as well.
 
 
India: Malai Ice Cream always makes an appearance at the trade shows. Malai means “cream” and also refers to a particular flavor of kulfi, the Indian ice cream (more about that in a moment), but in this case it’s the name of Pooja Bavishi’s company which launched in 2015. Shot through with Indian spices and churned out in artisanal, small batches in Brooklyn, the quality is readily apparent. Their gelato-like product comes in flavors like masala chai, rose with cinnamon roasted almonds, Turkish coffee, orange fennel, golden turmeric, star anise, lemon cardamom, sweet corn saffron, toasted nutmeg, baklava, carrot halwa, and more – basically, something for everyone. Visit their new (2019) shop at 268 Smith Street in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, but if you can’t make it, look for their product line in Whole Foods among many other markets.

Newcomer Kaurina’s was exhibiting their product at the show as well; they emphasize their use of all natural ingredients with an eye towards capturing the health conscious market. Even their chocolate, a flavor kulfi makers often don’t quite have a handle on, was great.

Leaving the trade shows behind and returning to the real world, Kwality Ice Cream, 1734 Oak Tree Road in Edison, New Jersey and 258-030 Hillside Ave, Floral Park, is part of a chain of ice cream shops that feature dedicated Indian flavors including sitafal (custard apple), chickoo (sapodilla), jamun/jambul (black plum), kesar (saffron), pista (pistachio), and dozens more, all of which are authentic and delicious. You’ll find similar shops in similar Indian neighborhoods in New Jersey like Iselin and Jersey City.

Back on the streets of New York City’s Little Indias (Lexington Avenue around East 28th Street in Manhattan and 73rd-74th Streets just off Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens), you’ll find the aforementioned kulfi, available often (and best) as pops but also in tubs in Indian markets.

I must confess that kulfi may be my favorite ethnic ice cream; sweet, creamy, intensely flavored, slightly chewy – so good it’ll make your brains fall out (as Soupy Sales used to say). It starts with milk that’s been cooked down for an eon or two, flavors are added, and it’s poured into molds and frozen directly, not churned. This process contributes to kulfi’s dense texture because no air has been blended in.

One of the classic flavors is malai, but it’s not merely cream; malai kulfi is aromatic with cardamom and nuts, sometimes saffron, sometimes rosewater. But malai is only the starting point along the road of ubiquitous kulfi flavors like pista (pistachio), mango, and almond with other more exotic examples to be found as well.

Slow to melt because of the lack of air, plastic encased kulfi pops are sometimes rolled vigorously between warm hands to get the process started. Favorite brands include Rajbhog and Shahi Kulfi for its unique almond variety. The kulfi that’s found in prepackaged pint and quart containers is available in a wider array of flavors, but in my opinion isn’t nearly as good as the pops.

Look to Patel Brothers on 37-27 74th Street in Jackson Heights, Queens, for both styles, as well as in refrigerator cases inside and outside mithai shops like Maharaja Sweets at 73-10 37th Avenue and Rajbhog Sweets at 72-27 37th Avenue.
 
 
The Middle East: While I’m sure there are some who might not immediately discern the difference between standard issue American ice cream and gelato (and diverse recipes make it more problematic), there’s no misidentifying the unique personality of Middle Eastern ice cream. It’s characterized by a pleasant sticky chewiness and make no mistake, mastic’s magic is the key.

A few summers ago, I stumbled on Holon, an Israeli/Middle Eastern market in Midwood, Brooklyn where I found Amazing Arabic Ice Cream, an absolutely delicious, hand-crafted, orange blossom mastika, “a Syrian delicacy that takes you back in time”.

Saffron & Rose from Los Angeles packages their Persian Golo Bol Bol for sale nationally at Middle Eastern markets; the saffron version is pretty good. They also make an icy version of falooda – you’ll recognize it by its congealed vermicelli and pinkish hue – but it’s not dairy-based so we’ll eschew it here.

You might run across Lezzetli ice cream in your travels; their most authentic flavor is mastiha (so many spellings!) which is resiny, woodsy and probably not for everybody. Aside from that flavor, the product seems to be sort of a cross between American and Mediterranean styles, but I’d suggest you go for the real deal: booza and dondurma.

Booza, an ice cream that hails from the Levant and Egypt, is known for two qualities, its stretchy consistency and its ability to resist melting. The elasticity comes from mastic, the resin that makes Turkish Delight delightfully chewy, and its prowess in fending off the consequences of Middle Eastern heat stems from sahlab (aka salep), a thickener made from ground orchid tubers that’s also used in beverages and puddings.

Turkish dondurma and Greece’s kaimaki are similar to booza, but in my experience, locally at least, booza boasts more bounce. At the Fancy Food Show, Pasha Delights touted their dondurma which they subtitle “Turkish Style Gelato”. Note too that YMMV (Your Mastic May Vary): recipes differ from one purveyor/manufacturer to the next, so expect varying degrees of mastickiness.

A stroll along 5th Avenue in Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge (which probably should have earned the moniker Little Levant, but didn’t) turns up a handful of opulent sweet shops, some of which feature mastic ice cream. (Did you know that Beirut and Bay Ridge are cognates? Just kidding.)

Cedars Pastry at 7204 5th Avenue usually carries the basic ashta (you might see it as kashta or qashta) mastic flavor, and always has the pistachio version; you can buy it there by the cup. Hookanuts, a few storefronts away at 7214, has pistachio, almond, and other favors as well, available in their freezer case. Antepli at 7216 is Turkish based and sells dondurma scooped fresh from tubs and packaged in cups and squeeze-up pouches.

If you’re a hard core booza booster, you should definitely make the trip to Republic of Booza at 76 North 4th Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. They up the ante on mastic/sahlab ice cream with the densest, stickiest booza I’ve found (see photos below). Read my post about Republic of Booza here.

 
 
Honorable Mention: A unique ice cream parlor if ever there was one is over-the-top Max and Mina’s Ice Cream at 71-26 Main Street in Flushing, Queens. Not listed above since they aren’t really about international ice cream, they have created scores of unusual flavors over the years including nova lox, herring, horseradish, and cholent among others which could certainly be considered ethnic. Note that each time I’ve ventured in, their flavor list was different, presumably to accommodate the latest experiments. Their babka ice cream really takes the cake!

For the sake of completeness and with the highest of hopes for its return if only for its novelty value, I’ll mention Uyghur Ice Cream from Xinjiang province in China. For one brief, shining moment, the sweet, milky, brown sugar flavor ice cream could be found at Erqal in the New World Mall Food Court in Flushing but the churn broke and Erqal is no longer in business.
Ever sanguine, we continue to entertain hope for its revival. Moral: Don’t cry over spilt milk, I guess. [Update: See comment below from Food and Footprints regarding a sighting at Kebab Empire’s Manhattan location!]
 
 
Disclaimer: I’m thrilled that New York City is a mecca for bespoke ice cream parlors, each with its own marketing perspective and formidable fungible flavor list. I’ve mentioned a number of them in this piece but obviously I’ve only targeted shops that have a focus on ethnic flavors or styles. So here’s to you too, Sundaes and Cones, OddFellows, Morgenstern’s, Ice & Vice, and so many more who craft wonderfully delicious ice cream and who occasionally dip a finger into some international flavors.

And beyond that, even within my own self-imposed exclusively-ethnic-and-dairy constraints, this post is not intended to be exhaustive in terms of either ice cream varieties or venues. If I’ve left out any of your favorites, please comment below and I promise to do an update. And if by some chance, I haven’t yet tried one of your recommendations, I’ll move it to the top of my to-eat list!